Complementary science

This paper on the fickleness of the boiling point illustrates the potential of what I call "complementary science," which contributes to scientific knowledge through historical and philosophical investigations. Complementary science asks scientific questions that are excluded from current specialist science. It begins by re-examining the obvious, by asking why we accept the basic truths of science that have become educated common sense. Because many things are protected from questioning and criticism in specialist science, its demonstrated effectiveness is also unavoidably accompanied by a degree of dogmatism and a narrowness of focus that can actually result in a loss of knowledge.

History and philosophy of science can ameliorate this situation, and seek to generate scientific knowledge in places where science itself fails to do so; I will call this the complementary function of history and philosophy of science, as opposed to its descriptive and prescriptive functions. Lest the reader should reach an immediate verdict of absurdity, I hasten to add: by the time I have finished explaining the sense of the above statement, some peculiar light will have been thrown on the sense of the expressions “generate", “knowledge", “science", “fails", and even “history and philosophy of science” itself. (From now on I will use the common informal abbreviation "HPS" for history and philosophy of science, not only for brevity but also in order to emphasize that what I envisage is one integrated mode of study, rather than history of science and philosophy of science simply juxtaposed to each other. HPS practiced with the aim of fulfilling its complementary function will be called HPS in its complementary mode or, synonymously, complementary science.)

In tackling the question of purpose, one could do much worse than start by looking at the actual motivations that move people: why does anyone want to study such a thing as HPS, even devote an entire lifetime to it? Here the only obvious starting point I have is myself, with a recognition that different people approach the field with different motivations. What drove me initially into this field and still drives me on is a curious combination of delight and frustration, of enthusiasm and skepticism, about science. What keeps me going is the marvel of learning the logic and beauty of conceptual systems that had initially seemed alien and nonsensical. It is the admiration in looking at routine experimental setups and realizing that they are actually masterpieces in which errors annihilate each other and information is squeezed out of nature like water from rocks. It is also the frustration and anger at the neglect and suppression of alternative conceptual schemes, at the interminable calculations in which the meanings of basic terms are never made clear, and at the necessity of accepting and trusting laboratory instruments whose mechanisms I have neither time nor expertise to learn and understand.

Can there be a common thread running through all of these various emotions? I think there is, and Thomas Kuhn's work gives me a starting point in articulating it. I am one of those who believe that Kuhn's ideas about normal science were at least as important as his ideas about scientific revolutions. And I feel an acute dilemma about normal science. I think Kuhn was right to emphasize that science as we know it can only function if certain fundamentals and conventions are taken for granted and shielded from criticism, and that even revolutionary innovations arise most effectively out of such tradition-bound research (see Kuhn 1970a, Kuhn 1970b, etc.). But I also think Karl Popper was right to maintain that the encouragement of such closed-mindedness in science was “a danger to science and, indeed, to our civilization", a civilization that often looks to science as the ideal form of knowledge and even a guide for managing social affairs (Popper 1970, 53). The practice of HPS as a complement to specialist normal science offers a way out of this dilemma between destroying science and fostering dogmatism. I believe that this is one of the main functions that HPS could serve, at once intellectual and political.

In other words, a need for HPS arises from the fact that specialist science cannot afford to be completely open. There are two important aspects to this necessary lack of openness. First, in specialist science many elements of knowledge must be taken for granted, since they are used as foundations or tools for studying other things. This also means that certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize those items of knowledge that need to be taken for granted. Such are the necessities of specialist science, quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent. Second, not all worthwhile questions can be addressed in specialist science, simply because there are limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time. Each specialist scientific community will have some degree of consensus about which problems are most urgent, and which problems can most plausibly be solved. Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected. This is not malicious or misguided neglect, but a reasonable act of prioritization necessitated by limitations of material and intellectual resources.

All the same, we must face up to the fact that suppressed and neglected questions represent a loss of knowledge, actual and potential. The complementary function of HPS is to recover and even create such questions anew and, hopefully, some answers to them as well. Therefore the desired result of research in HPS in this mode is an enhancement of our knowledge and understanding of nature. HPS can recover useful ideas and facts lost in the record of past science; address foundational questions concerning present science; and explore alternative conceptual systems and lines of experimental inquiry for future science. If these investigations are successful, they will complement and enrich current specialist science. HPS can enlarge and deepen the pool of our knowledge about nature. That is to say: HPS can generate scientific knowledge.

The following analogy may be helpful in illustrating my ideas about this complementary function of HPS, though it is rather far-fetched and should not be pushed beyond where it ceases to be useful. The most cogent argument for maintaining capitalism is that it is the best known economic system for ensuring high productivity and efficiency which, in the end, translate into the satisfaction of human needs and desires. At the same time, hardly anyone would deny the need for philanthropy or a social welfare system that ameliorates the inevitable neglect of certain human needs and the unreasonable concentration of wealth in a capitalist economy. Likewise, we cannot do without specialist science because we do not know any other method of producing knowledge so effectively. At the same time, we also cannot deny the need to offset some of the noxious consequences of producing knowledge in that manner, including the neglect and suppression of certain questions and the unreasonable concentration of knowledge to a small intellectual elite. Forcing specialist science to be completely open would destroy it, and that would be analogous to anarchy. A better option would be to leave specialist science alone within reasonable limits, but to offset its undesirable effects by practicing complementary science alongside it. In that way HPS can maintain the spirit of open inquiry for general society while the specialist scientific disciplines pursue esoteric research undisturbed.

Complementary science is critical but not prescriptive in relation to specialist science. There are two different dimensions to the critical stance that complementary science can take toward specialist science. First, when complementary science identifies scientific questions that are excluded by specialist science, it is difficult to avoid the implication that we would like to have those questions answered. That is already a value judgment on current specialist science, namely that it does not address certain questions we consider important or interesting. However, at least in a large number of cases, this judgment also comes with the mitigating recognition that there are good reasons for specialist science to neglect those questions. That recognition prevents the step from judgment to prescription. The primary aim of complementary science is not to tell specialist science what to do, but to do what specialist science is presently unable to do. It is a shadow discipline, whose boundaries change exactly so as to encompass whatever gets excluded in specialist science.

The second dimension of the critical stance taken in complementary science is more controversial. On examining certain discarded elements of past science, we may reach a judgment that their rejection was either for imperfect reasons or for reasons that are no longer valid. Such a judgment would activate the most creative aspect of complementary science. If we decide that there are avenues of knowledge that were closed off for poor reasons, then we can try exploring them again. At that point complementary science would start creating parallel traditions of scientific research that diverge from the dominant traditions that have developed in specialist science. It is important to note that even such a step falls short of a repudiation of current specialist science. Since we do not know in advance whether and to what degree the complementary traditions might be successful, the act of creating them does not imply any presumption that it will lead to superior results to what the specialists have achieved since closing off the avenues that we seek to re-open. (All of this is not to deny that there are situations which call for a prescriptive mode of HPS, in which we question whether science is being conducted properly, and propose external intervention if the answer is negative.)

Complementary science could trigger a decisive transformation in the nature of our scientific knowledge. Alongside the expanding and diversifying store of current specialist knowledge, we can create a growing complementary body of knowledge that combines a reclamation of past science, a renewed judgment on past and present science, and an exploration of alternatives. This knowledge would by its nature tend to be accessible to non-specialists. It would also be helpful or at least interesting to the current specialists, as it would show them the reasons behind the acceptance of fundamental items of scientific knowledge. It may interfere with their work in so far as it erodes blind faith in the fundamentals, but I believe that would actually be a beneficial effect overall. The most curious and exciting effect of all may be on education. Complementary science could become a mainstay of science education, serving the needs of general education as well as preparation for specialist training. That would be a most far-reaching step, enabling the educated public to participate once again in building the knowledge of our universe.

Read more on pp. 238-249 of Inventing Temperature (Chang 2004).

Other complementary-scientific investigations I have carried out so far include Chang (1993), Chang (2002), Chang (2004), Chang and Leonelli (2005) and Chang (forthcoming), the details of which can be found in the list of references.

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